Hide My Eyes
First published in the UK by Chatto and Windus, 1958
This edition: Penguin Books, 1961
Source: My own
This month is 1958 month here at Past Offences. I’m hosting a collection of book and film reviews focusing on the year 1958 – if you want to play, and you’re more than welcome to, please head over to the sign-up page. My 1958 pick was a nice surprise. I thought I had read all of the Margery Allingham Campion novels back in the ’90s – they’re all lined up on my bookshelves – but as soon as I opened my copy of Hide My Eyes, I realised I had somehow neglected to read it. And it’s a cracker.
Hide My Eyes opens in London, in the rain, near Theatreland. A little country bus, complete with two dozing passengers, stops in a dark alley just long enough for the driver to get out and commit a murder. In passing, he spots an elderly lady waiting for a bus home and arranges for a taxi to pick her up. With which strange behaviour, the Goff Place Mystery enters Scotland Yard’s list of unsolved cases.
This book is once again Charlie Luke’s show. Allingham’s series character Albert Campion appears, but is entirely in the background. It is eight months after the Goff Place murder. Luke, now at Scotland Yard, has developed an obsession with a small patch of London called Garden Green. On little evidence but a lot of instinct, he has concluded that the area hosts a multiple murderer. He is so convinced that he has – at the cost of 30 bob – had a direct line to the local police station installed in his office, with instructions to report anything unusual.
Luke is right. The villain of the piece is a nasty piece of work called Gerry Hawker (or something like that – he uses aliases). Gerry is a plausible liar who subsists on the proceeds of crime, but unlike most petty criminals he is not afraid to kill. In common with Jack Havoc in The Tiger in the Smoke, he has a philosophy which he feels makes him impossible to catch. In this paragraph he is talking about women, but he may as well be describing his approach to murder. He is quiet, methodical, and self-contained:
‘Any kind of affection is a solvent. It melts and adulterates the subject and by indulging it he loses his identity and hence his efficiency. By keeping myself to myself in the face of every conceivable attack I have remained successful, bright, and indestructible.’
The theme of Hide My Eyes is wilful blindness, in particular the unwillingness of a mother to see the bad in her son. The ‘mother’ is Polly Tassie, a widow living in Garden Green’s little Museum of Oddities. Polly and her husband ‘adopted’ Gerry during the War. She knows he is bad, but can’t believe he is anything more than misguided, even though she keeps catching him out and her friends advise caution:
‘When one is fond of a son, real, adopted, or step, one has no rules. I know that. One forgives. That is all there is to it, and the whole nature of attachment. That’s life. But, dearest, one still ought to know. One should take common precautions, both for his sake and for one’s own.’
Unlike Jack Havoc, who is almost an anti-hero, Gerry arouses nothing but repulsion in the reader. We follow him over the course of a day’s lies and nefarious activities and he is, genuinely, one of the creepiest baddies I’ve encountered this year. Gerry is accompanied by Richard Waterfield, a young man who has fallen for Polly’s niece Annabelle Tassie and is suspicious enough of Gerry to want to keep an eye on him. An especially creepy moment is when Gerry borrows Annabelle’s appearance to describe a girlfriend he is going to phone. The similarity is too subtle for Richard to notice, but the words used echo the narrator’s description perfectly.
So, how 1958ish is Hide My Eyes? I thought this comic incident, which takes place inside a barber’s shop, had a great sense of entering a forgotten world that we probably don’t remember forgetting. Anyone discussed the correct time recently? It is, by the way, central to Hawker’s modus operandi.
‘What is the time exactly?’
The question turned out to be amazingly popular with everybody. Mr Vick turned at once to point to the flyblown disc on the wall behind him.
‘That clock is dead right by the Shakespeare Head long bar, slow by Ronnie’s next door, and fast by the B.B.C.,’ he announced with incomprehensible pride.
‘It is four minutes and twenty-three – don’t stop me, twenty-four, twenty-five seconds fast pre-cisely,’ said the sporting salesman, looking at his wristwatch, an impressive performance which he offset somewhat by adjusting the instrument immediately.
‘Wait,’ commanded the fat man, heaving himself up and accomplishing vasty manoeuvres under is shrouding cape. ‘This is the right time. This is the real time. Railway time, that’s what this is.’ He brought out a large silver pocket watch, looked at it earnestly for some moments, shook it, and put it back. ‘You’re not far out,’ he said to the barber.
Not a scene an author could write now, but not especially specific to the late ’50s. This is more like it:
‘Luke finds it absorbing even though he can’t hang ’em any more.’
His friend’s face became a shade blacker.
‘That’s not a very popular line of talk, Cully,’ he was beginning when Donne ventured to reply for himself.
‘We’ll hang the chap we’re after now all right,’ he said.
‘Think so?’ Luke sounded spiteful. ‘At the moment I’m wondering if we have enough evidence to bring him to trial… If under the new regulations we’ve got to see him sentenced twice before he’s eligible he may well escape topping. I can’t see the public standing for two trials for murder, first conviction no hanging, the second it’s laid on.’
I assume this is a reference to the 1957 Homicide Act, which seems to have made to harder to execute murderers, although I can’t see the relevant provisions in the Wikipedia article. (One of the less appealing aspects of Luke is his enthusiasm for topping killers, as seen in The Tiger in the Smoke.)
So there we have it – a great piece of suspense writing, less broad in its scope than The Tiger in the Smoke, but possibly better in its evocation of the banality of evil.
The Passing Tramp: What’s your favorite Margery Allingham crime novel? It’s been de rigueur for some time now to say The Tiger in the Smoke (1952), but, truth be told, that one’s not mine.
Heavenali: Allingham’s details of London streets, the inhabitants of Garden Green, and the odd little house and museum which are at the centre of the story – are brilliantly evocative.
A Pile of Leaves: Chapter on chapter, page on page, we’re drawn deeper into the story, into this circle of strangers who, you’d think, have nothing in common. Deeper and deeper into that quiet London square, into the house with a queer museum of odd artefacts in it, up the stairs to the room with the gas fire and the big Chinese vase. It was quite impossible to set aside, even when I had to close the book – the novel was always purring along in the back of my mind, waiting for me to go deeper in.